Crikey’s National Affairs Editor has been catching up on some reading.

  • Not Happy, John, Margo Kingston
  • The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image, James Curran
  • Australian Son: Inside Mark Latham, Craig McGregor

Three recent books on Australian politics – one brilliant and infuriating, one worthy but narrow and one just plain vacuous.

Margo Kingston’s Not Happy John is already into its third print run. It deserves to be. It is superb – if you can read the damned thing. It should have gone through three editors before it went to three editions.

Margo pinpoints everything that’s wrong with the Howard Government – but, being Margo, wants to talk about more. Much more. Too much more.

Eighty odd pages of brilliant polemic on matters ranging the corruption of the system supposed to protect the integrity of Australia’s electoral system downwards is obscured by 350 pages of tangents. It’s so Margo. Passionate, captivating and utterly infuriating all at once.

Buy it and persevere. Yes, you’ll want to bin it at times. Skip some parts altogether – the Hanan Ashrawi peace prize folly chapter, definitely – but plug on. Read the damn thing.

I know I shouldn’t be encouraging Margo’s self indulgence, but when she is right she is so damned right.

“We hold these truths to be self evident.” Our nation, our polity, has never been able to express itself in such elegantly simple words. Not Happy John obscures the truths we need to know about ourselves under a pile of verbiage – but at least it identifies them.

James Curran’s The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image is a very different book, but is about passion, too – the search for an Australian identity as articulated by our Prime Ministers from Holt to Howard.

It deals with nationalism, a rather embarrassingly dated – if not chauvinistic – concept for us citizens of a globalised world, but one that is vital to politics.

Our political leaders need to be able to reflect the mood of the nation, but also to capture its imagination. Do they?

Curran has no sympathy for John Howard. “As a nation we’re over all that sort of identity stuff,” is the line Curran uses to illustrate our current Prime Minister’s way.

There is certainly no Don Watson vision splendid in Howard’s words, but neither is there that sense of talking down that leaders as different (in their time, anyway) as Malcolm Fraser or Gough Whitlam were guilty of – let alone Keating invective – that created the gap between the governed and governments that John Howard’s vision of a comfortable and relaxed Australia, for all its falsity, has at least managed to keep enough voters on side to win three elections and be a good chance for a fourth.

Curran deals with a concept, nationalism, rather than policies. It makes his book a valuable new addition to a crucial debate, but a debate that is less urgent and less significant that it was in the days when Donald Horne or Russell Ward were its leaders.

Look at Howard’s own justification for “comfortable and relaxed”:

“I used that phrase because of a deeply held belief that I have about Australian nationalism and Australian patriotism and that is that we should not find ourselves engaged in a frantic and constant search for a new or different identity… There is a very identifiable Australian character and Australian identity. It’s very different from what it was 40 or 50 years ago although there are some common threads that bind the Australian identity of today with the Australian identity of 40 or 50 years ago.”

It’s spin, but like the best spin it contains some truth – and no one should ever underestimate John Howard. Look what he’s managed to assemble out of lies.

Curran looks at just one aspect of the ever-unfolding story of our nation, our sense of self. It is a pity he does not link it to its expression in policy – Paul Kelly’s Australian Settlement, let alone what Andrew Norton has called “a new more liberal Australian Settlement… multi-racial, free trading, enterprise and individual bargaining, and state facilitating, helping people help themselves rather than encouraging dependency”.

One man who understands this possibility is Mark Latham. Craig McGregor’s Australian Son: Inside Mark Latham may be the first biography of the Labor leader, but half an hour on Google tells us more about the man who wants to be our next prime minister.

Latham seems to accept the need for a new Australian settlement, that the free market is here to say, that state ownership didn’t work, McGregor says. He wants “to turn the mass of people into owners instead”.

“The nationalisation agenda has come to its natural end,” McGregor quotes Latham as saying. “I mean, where do we go? Do we get back to government owning banks, airlines, butchers’ shops? Well, I don’t think any of those things are desirable. Move back into banks? The way to do that is through community banks. There’s not electoral support for further nationalisation. Then there’s the politics of this; if you ask the electorate, spend $5 billion to buy a bank, or $5 billion for schools?”

These are significant questions – but questions Latham has been asking in public for a decade now.

If he wants to be Prime Minister six weeks from now, it’s time for answers. McGregor never presses him for one. His book is empty – and his subject now needs to be more than just an intriguing possibility.

Not Happy John by Margo Kingston
Published by Penguin
RRP $24.95
Paperback, 446 pages
ISBN 0143002589

The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image by James Curran
Published by Melbourne University Press
RRP $35.00
Paperback, 314 pages
ISBN 05522850987

Australian Son: Inside Mark Latham by Craig McGregor
Released August 2 by Pluto Press
Paperback, 198 pages
RRP$24.95
ISBN 18603288X

Christian Kerr can be contacted at christian @crikey.com.au

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